clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Paul Allen Crafted the Vision for Modern Seattle

The Microsoft cofounder used the wealth he accrued from the software developer to transform his hometown

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

On New Year’s Day 1979, a small software company relocated its headquarters from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. For Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the move was a homecoming — both men were born in Seattle in the 1950s and met at a local private school in 1968. But while Gates would ultimately seek global domination via an operating system (and later global salvation via his foundation), Allen never again strayed too far from home. He became a central agent in Seattle’s transformation into a tech hotbed and ravenous sports town in the past two decades. On Monday, he died of cancer at age 65.

Allen was the marginalized founder that is part of every startup origin story. He came up with the name “Micro-soft” for his and Gates’s college-dropout venture, which aimed to create software to operate desktop computers. He claimed a 36 percent stake in the company in 1977, but left in 1983 after a series of disputes with Gates. (“We had an amazing friendship and an amazing partnership. That unraveled at Microsoft,” he told The New York Times in 2011.) Allen made one key decision on his way out, playing hardball when Gates tried to get him to sell his stake in the company at $5 per share. Instead, Allen retained his ownership stake and generated a net worth of more than $20 billion after Microsoft became the most valuable company in the world in the ’90s.

While Gates’s singular focus became building Microsoft into a multitentacled digital giant, Allen used his tech wealth to become an entrepreneur with a dozen smaller fascinations. He bought the Portland Trail Blazers in 1988 and spent much of the ’90s piecing together a small cable empire that was anchored by Charter Communications. Like any respectable tech billionaire, he had a space venture. He donated more than $2 billion to philanthropic causes and announced that he would leave much of his wealth to charity after he died. He had a 414-foot yacht called Octopus, where he apparently shredded like Jimi Hendrix while jamming with Stevie Wonder in the presence of Quincy Jones, illustrating once again that celebrity wealth really does break down all boundaries.

But Allen’s most impactful business decisions occurred in his hometown. In 1997 he purchased the Seattle Seahawks, a floundering NFL franchise whose reviled owner had been on the verge of moving the team to California. He also convinced Seattle-area taxpayers to pitch in $300 million for a new Seahawks stadium, a condition of his ownership of the team. Allen himself appeared in a television ad imploring citizens to vote for the deal, and his clout pushed the ballot initiative over the edge. With three conference championships and one Super Bowl under Allen’s ownership, the team has become a cornerstone of Seattle’s sports scene (along with the MLS’s Seattle Sounders, who play in the same stadium and were partially owned by Allen). “Our culture is about winning, and [for] Paul everything he’s done in his life has been about winning,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said last year.

Allen made another big bet on Seattle in the 1990s, pouring $20 million into a campaign to turn the industrial neighborhood of South Lake Union into a Central Park–like green space surrounded by tech startups. Voters rejected the idea, but Allen transformed South Lake Union anyway, helping turn the neighborhood into a hotbed of business development. The fast-growing online retailer Amazon leased millions of square feet of office space from Allen’s real estate firm Vulcan in the 2000s. In 2012 Amazon bought its headquarters outright from Vulcan for $1.2 billion. It was a changing of the guard, as Jeff Bezos became Seattle’s resident tech figurehead (and sometimes pariah). But while Amazon is credited with lobbing the “prosperity bomb” that’s radically transformed the city this decade, the spark was there in Allen’s vision for the neighborhood.

Allen, who cast himself as the Steve Wozniak–like tech savant to Gates’s savvy businessman in his 2011 memoir Idea Man, retained a keen interest in the sector’s new frontiers throughout his life. Earlier this year he was investing an additional $125 million into his AI research lab to teach computers “common sense.” And his tech fascinations extended to the world of entertainment as well. In 2014 he upgraded Seattle’s old Cinerama multiplex into the “world’s greatest movie theater,” with 4K laser projectors and a new sound system. Allen left Microsoft decades ago, but his influence over the tech world and the physical one is still felt today. “In his own quiet and persistent way, he created magical products, experiences and institutions,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “In doing so, he changed the world.”